Having previously spoken with Second World War Historian Mark Simner about Operation Mincemeat and The Man Who Never Was (Read Here), we continue with our theme of looking at the role of the British Intelligence Services during WW2 with an examination of the Double-Cross System and the interesting episode of Agent Garbo.
Throughout the Second World War the British intelligence services persistently and completely out-manoeuvred their counterparts in the Abwehr, the intelligence organisation of Nazi Germany. Indeed, every single German secret agent sent to Britain was captured and either imprisoned, executed or turned into a double agent, agreeing to spy on behalf of the British against their former masters. The British ‘Double-Cross’ system, as it was known, was one of the very best operations in the history of espionage, perhaps rivalled only by the Soviet Cambridge Spy Ring.
The Double-Cross system, which was overseen by the XX Committee (pronounced ‘Twenty Committee’) under the chairmanship of John Cecil Masterman, ran dozens of double-agents during the course of the war with varying degrees of success. Such agents included the now famous Eddie Chapman, known as ‘Agent Zigzag’, and Dušan “Duško” Popov, who was given the codename ‘Tricycle’. However, one of the more unusual double-agents who worked for the British was ‘Agent Garbo’.
Garbo was in fact a Spaniard by the name of Juan Pujol García, who had been born in Catalonia in 1912. After finishing his schooling, Juan Pujol took up an apprenticeship in a hardware store, although he would later study both animal husbandry and poultry farming prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In 1931, he joined the Spanish Army – six months military service in Spain was compulsory at the time – but hated the life of a soldier. After this short period of service, Pujol was no doubt delighted to cast off his uniform, but any sense of relief was soon shattered when he was again forced to serve during the civil war. Interestingly, he claimed to have spent time serving both the Nationalists and Republicans, which, if true, is perhaps an early indication of his ‘double’ nature; he also later claimed that he never fired a shot in anger for either side.
When the civil war ended, Pujol was again relieved to return to civilian life, although the conflict had left him with a strong – and healthy – resentment of fascism and communism, as well as totalitarianism in general. He also met Araceli Gonzalez, a woman who he married in Madrid and fathered a daughter called Joan. War, however, was looming once again in Europe and, although Spain would remain neutral, Pujol felt, most likely due to his hatred of the Nazis, that he needed to get involved and help the Allied effort against Germany in whatever small, but non-violent, way he could.
In 1941, with France under German occupation and the British Empire seemingly opposing Germany alone, Pujol approached the British with an offer of spying for them. Despite his enthusiasm, the suspicious British showed little interest in the Spanish chicken farmer and turned him down on no less than three separate occasions. He, therefore, decided to go it alone and become a spy on his own initiative; first by offering to spy for the Germans, after which he intended to become a double-agent for the British, who, he believed, would then surely become interested in taking up his services.
Juan Pujol’s plan swung into action when he began to make it known he was in fact very pro-Nazi, something which, possibly due to his alleged service with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, he achieved with relative ease. He also managed to obtain a diplomatic passport, having posed as an employee of the Spanish embassy in Lisbon, which would enable him to travel around much of Europe despite the current hostilities. Armed with both his new-found reputation and passport, Pujol next approached Friedrich Knappe-Ratey, the German intelligence officer in Madrid known as ‘Frederico’, with the offer of spying for Germany. This time he was successful, and the Germans, after some hesitation, trained him in the art of espionage and packed him off to Britain in order to recruit a network of sub-agents, who would then pour information about the British into the German intelligence system. To the Germans, Juan Pujol would be known as ‘Agent Arabel’.
Arabel, of course, had no intention of travelling to Britain, where he would likely be caught and quite possibly be imprisoned or even executed. Instead, he settled in Lisbon and began to make up bogus intelligence to send to his German handlers. To do this, he acquired British tourist guidebooks, newspapers and magazines, from where he abstracted information which, coupled with his rather active imagination, he used to form the basis of his reports to Frederico. In addition, he also created a whole host of fictitious sub-agents who he claimed resided across Britain.
The intelligence Pujol sent back to his German handlers was flawed, often including basic mistakes that were due to the fact he had never actually visited Britain. According to MI5:
‘One of the best known [mistakes] was his remark to his German controller that on a visit to Glasgow he had found men who “would do anything for a litre of wine”. Fortunately it appears that the Germans were equally unaware of Glaswegian drinking habits.’
Yet despite some glaring errors, German intelligence appeared to accept his reports and suspected nothing. In early 1942, believing he was now firmly established as a German spy, albeit a false one, he next approached Lieutenant Patrick Demorest, who worked at the US naval attaché’s office in Lisbon, with an offer to work for the Americans. Demorest promptly handed Pujol over to the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who now saw much potential in the young chicken farmer.
By late April 1942, Pujol finally found himself in Britain as a guest of the British Security Service (MI5), who quickly set about establishing him as a double-agent. Initially, he was given the codename of ‘Bovril’, after the well-known concentrated beef drink, but it was later decided that ‘Garbo’, after the Swedish actress Greta Garbo, would be a more interesting name. The MI5 officer assigned to act as Garbo’s case handler would be Tomás “Tommy” Harris – the two would get on extremely well.
Both men would send hundreds of fake reports and letters to Lisbon, where they were collected by German intelligence operatives and poured over for any hints of useful information. The information supposedly came from a network of fictional sub-agents recruited by Garbo in Britain, which, according to MI5: ‘… included such characters as a Venezuelan in Glasgow, an indiscreet US army sergeant and a Welsh nationalist leading a group of Fascists called the “Brothers of the Aryan World Order” in Swansea.’ Each of these fictional agents would be given made-up identities and backgrounds, being known in the intelligence community as ‘legends’, in the hope of fooling the Germans into thinking they were real people.
The reports Pujol and Harris sent to the Germans would often contain both true and false information. Some of the reports had to contain true information, otherwise the Germans would quickly smell a rat and realise Arabel was under British control. However, all true information was either already known to the Germans or otherwise harmless (aptly known as ‘chicken feed’ in the world of espionage). On the other hand, the false information was sent to make the Germans think what MI5 wanted them to think and, coupled with the work of other double-agents, the ruse worked extremely well.
An example of this type of work can be found in a letter sent by Garbo to his German handler before Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. The note contained true information regarding troop movements via convoys bound for the Mediterranean, hinting at a possible amphibious assault in Northern Africa. However, the note was deliberately sent late so as to arrive after the actual landings had taken place. For the Germans, still believing Arabel was under their control, it was further proof that he was still working for – and loyal – to them.
However, it would be in early 1944 that Garbo would take part in his most significant operation of the war, in what was perhaps the most important operation ever mounted by the Double-Cross system – Operation Fortitude. Fortitude was the name given to the Allied deception plan (as part of the wider Operation Bodyguard) to make the Germans believe the Allies were planning to invade Europe at locations other than those chosen for the real landings on D-Day. Garbo was instructed to send many messages, over twenty a day, from January to the eve of the landings, which indicated that the Pas de Calais was the main Allied target, and not Normandy.
As D-Day approached, the decision was taken by the XX Committee that Garbo should warn the Germans that a landing would in fact occur in Normandy, but that it would only be a distraction to the coming main thrust at the Pas de Calais. Once the Allied landings had taken place in Normandy, his loyalty as a spy for Germany would be greatly reinforced. Naturally, this partially true information, supposedly supplied by one of his sub-agents, would only be delivered at a time when it was too late for the Germans to do anything with it. However, when Garbo sent his radio message to the Germans on the night of the invasion, on 5/6 June, no one appeared to be listening and he received no reply. After the landings had commenced, he finally received a message from his German handlers and, sensing an opportunity to reinforce his deception of still working for Germany, Pujol accused the German intelligence officers of negligence and even threatened to abandon his work. Again the ruse worked, and the Germans continued to believe in his loyalty.
On D-Day +3, Garbo was instructed to send yet another message, this time indicating that he, again through his sub-agents, was able to offer his German handlers information about the Allied order of battle for the ongoing invasion. In this message, it was claimed that the Allies had 75 divisions, 25 more than actually existed, and that US General George S. Patton was currently in the south-east of Britain with 11 divisions of 150,000 men, thus still threatening the Pas de Calais with another landing. In response, the Germans retained 21 divisions in or near the Pas de Calais, and so weakened their fighting capacity against the actual main Allied advance in Normandy.
Garbo’s part in this deception, of course, was only itself part of a much bigger operation involving other double-agents and the use of fake tanks and planes, which the Luftwaffe photographed from above and believed to be real, all of which contributed to the success of Fortitude. However, it is probably fair to say that Garbo took the lead role in so far as the Double-Cross system was concerned. Indeed, after the war it became known that over sixty of Pujol’s messages had been included in important German intelligence summaries during, and shortly after, the critical time of the Allied invasion of France.
Time, however, had begun to run out for Agent Garbo, who was now becoming less and less useful to the Allies. It would, in the last year of the war, only be a matter of time before the Germans realised Pujol was under British control. As such, the decision was made to let it be known to the Germans that Arabel had finally be caught and arrested. Thus, Juan Pujol disappeared from the stage with his German handlers still believing he was their loyal spy. The chicken farmer had succeeded in his goal of helping the Allies defeat Nazism, and he still had never fired a shot in anger.
For his wartime services, Pujol would be awarded the German Iron Cross Second Class, the medal being authorised by Adolf Hitler himself. Eventually, the medal made it to the hands of ex-Agent Arabel from one of his handlers after the cessation of hostilities. He was also awarded an MBE by the British, which was presented to him by MI5’s Director General Sir David Petrie, making the Spaniard probably unique in the world of double-agents, being the only one to receive honours from both sides.
With the war over, MI5 assisted Pujol in his move to Angola, where he faked his death in 1949. He did this due to the fear that many remaining hardcore Nazis might find him and kill him for betraying them and Germany. With his fake death done, he moved to Venezuela, where, rather than take up chicken farming again, he opened a book shop and attempted to lead a quiet life. He would separate from Araceli and marry Carman Cillia, with whom his had two sons, Carlos and Juan. He would, however, briefly return to England in the early 1980s for a reunion with some of his British wartime colleagues at the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge, London, and in 1984 he visited Normandy to see for himself where the D-Day landings had taken place. Four years later, Pujol died in Caracas, and was buried in the small town of Choroní in Venezuela.
It perhaps fitting to finish this short article with the words of Tomás Harris, Pujol’s wartime MI5 handler:
‘In 1941 when the Germans were all-powerful in Spain, the British Embassy in Madrid was being stoned, France had collapsed and the German invasion was imminent, little were the Germans to know that the small meek young Spaniard who then approached them volunteering to go to London to engage in espionage on their behalf would turn out to be a British agent. Still less were they to discover that the network which they instructed him to build up in the UK was to be composed of 27 characters who were nothing more than a figment of the imagination.’
Thank you to Mark for speaking with us again about another truly fascinating piece of Britain’s Secret Service history during the Second World War.
You can also read other WWII Nation articles written by Mark Simner, that focus on a few of the other remarkable episodes of British espionage in WWII:
Photo Credits: Agent Garbo | Spaniard Joan Pujol Garcia | Republican International Brigadiers | Tomás (Tommy) Harris | Beach obstacles at Pas de Calais | An inflatable “dummy” M4 Sherman | Dummy Aircraft